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Honeybees and Distant Thunder: The million copy award-winning Japanese bestseller about the enduring power of great friendship

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Jin is surrounded by nature in France, where he usually lives with his beekeeper father. Because his father cannot travel to Japan while Jin competes, he arranges for Jin to stay with a friend who owns a florist shop. Jin feels a special bond with the florist. The atmosphere of the piece was serene, modest, uncomplicated. Yet the world it portrayed was vast. Like a miniature indoor garden or a tea house. Where a part could evoke the whole. Where, from a tiny fragment, you felt something massive and endless. Or perhaps you could say it inspired a paradoxical view of the universe, where the whole world was contained in it precisely because of its smallness. I never got the sense that there were more onomatopoeia words here than usual (I could be wrong, of course), though Japanese often relies on these, and indeed they’re always a challenge for the translator. A book begging to be read on the beach, with the sun warming the sand and salt in the air: pure escapism.

Tender and intense, Honeybees and Distant Thunder is the unflinching story of love, courage and rivalry as three young people come to understand what it means to truly be a friend. While global fiction is reaching ever-higher critical reception, the translators who open the doors to these new worlds for us are still often neglected. Translators like Jennifer Croft (translator of Nobel-winning Olga Tokarczuk) have worked to correct this, such as through the #TranslatorsOnTheCover campaign, but there is still much work to be done.

Throughout Honeybees and Distant Thunder, one thing is apparent: Onda’s passion for music is undeniable. Expect a wave of visceral reactions as you read — especially if you are a creative yourself — as the vivid depictions of human emotions and the musical pieces that move them work their magic. Note, however, that the narrative style, which relies heavily on repetition at times, may not resonate well with all readers. Despite this, Honeybees and Distant Thunder is still an emotive and poetic work, well worth the time it takes to read it. Read More Japanese Literature Philip, you’ve translated a number of monumental books from Japan, perhaps most notably the work of Haruki Murakami. Can you tell me what drew you to the work of Riku Onda? This book follows a group of people competing in an international piano competition in a small Japanese town. There’s disgraced child prodigy Aya, mysterious son of a beekeeper Jin, the ‘Prince of Julliard’ Masaru, and the seemingly ordinary Akashi. Each competitor (and those surrounding them) go through immense changes as they affect each other through music. After three feverish rounds, the storyline focuses on the final competition. Music serves as a universal language, uniting the top six who represent four different countries. The end result, while surprising, neatly ties up loose ends. In a small coastal town just a stone's throw from Tokyo, a prestigious piano competition is underway. Over the course of two feverish weeks, three friends will experience some of the most joyous - and painful - moments of their lives.

The third piece of Estampes, ‘Gardens in the Rain’. The temperature suddenly dropped. The madder-red light that had been shining down on the audience dissipated, whisking them to chilly France. To a lush garden wet in the afternoon rain. The sky suddenly dimmed, with gusts of moist wind, raindrops. The wind grew more blustery, shaking the trees, the rain striking leaves and flowers, making them bow lower, lower and lower. Children scattered, trying to dodge the rain, a dog scampering beside them. Musicians converge on a single stage for a contest that will separate technical skill from true genius in Honeybees and Distant Thunder, a novel that cements Riku Onda as a virtuosic talent. As someone who has zero knowledge about piano and classical music, I’m absolutely pleased to have come across this absolutely vibrant and emotive story by Riku Onda. Set during a prestigious piano competition in a small coastal town, Honeybees and Distant Thunder centers around four individuals as they embark on a journey of self-exploration via their shared love and passion for the piano and classical music. With the audience and all the supporting staff having to stay locally for the duration of the competition, it was an economic boost for a town, and a good opportunity to raise its profile. This resulted in a flood of competitions, big and small, popping up all over the world, with pianists seeking out contests that would bolster their careers, and the organizers seeking outstanding competitors who would win more renown for the competition. So cut-throat was the whole business now that competitions had become like warring fiefdoms. In a small coastal town just a stone's throw from Tokyo, a prestigious piano competition is underway. Over the course of two feverish weeks, three students will experience some of the most joyous—and painful—moments of their lives. Though they don't know it yet, each will profoundly and unpredictably change the others, for ever.Then, by bouncing around different characters, the author has the opportunity to repeat the same ideas and sentences again -- sometimes verbatim. This is what made the entire story and its inhabitants come to life, it was so vivid you could taste the music. I was afraid I would get bored because I knew pretty much nothing about classical music let alone their world, never did I think I’d be so invested in something I have no active passion for. Incredible!

Onda also links nature to music. Masaru thinks about a piece called Spring and Ashura that he played in the competition: Foster’s latest, highly imaginative work of creative nonfiction envisages the lives of animals, from gannets to otters, in this harsh, human-dominated world. An urban fox cub befriends a young girl before encountering the terror of a hunt, while an orca matriarch is shot at by rampaging day-trippers on boats. Evocative and beautifully written, it’s a deeply immersive read. Our Missing Hearts I was also fascinated by the tuning aspect; it stands to reason that each pianist would have their own style, but the novel also talks about the sound Jin, perhaps the central character in the novel, is able to get out of his piano. Jin builds a relationship with one of the competition’s piano tuners, Asano, and has experience with piano tuning himself, which surprises some of the other characters. Upon the first round performances, it becomes immediately apparent who is a genius. And that’s Masaru, Aya, and Jin. Jin unnerves everyone from the get-go because he acts like he’s doing whatever he wants, but he ends up doing just that. He doesn’t actually know or care for the rules, but he’s a genius. Aya and Jin strike up a friendship after this round because of how she ends remembering him because he broke into her school to play the piano. He then follows her to her practice room and they play together, which completely changes the meaning of music for her. She sees it as an artistic expression and conversation now, which seals her fate in the competition but grows her as a musician. The novel is split into each round, and the way the music is described is lyrical, almost poetic. Onda drops you into a completely different world that the characters are creating with their performances, as they often are playing similar pieces and have different interpretations of what the pieces mean. I think this format works really well, but it drags at certain points. Round 1 is incredibly longer than the other rounds, and we don’t get the full scope of the romance aspects. That’s fine, but feel like it’s alluded by the mentors Masaru and Aya will date and it will end horribly.As I translated, I knew I also had to familiarize myself with the compositions performed in the novel, and it became a mini-seminar for me in the classical repertoire. And a good way to rest my eyes from looking at the screen, and enjoy listening to some wonderful music.

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